When and How to Correct Students


On October 26, over six hundred teachers gathered for Pearson’s live webinar Engaging A New Generation with Real World English, which was part of the ELT professional development series. I teamed up with my colleague and fellow grammar lover, Pamela Vittorio, in order to share ideas and tips for today’s grammar classroom. The most exciting part of our 1-hour session was the lengthy Q&A in the second half. We answered as many questions as we could, but even so, a few questions were left unanswered. I’d like to address at least one of those questions right now.

A teacher asked about error correction during student production. When and how should we do it? Is it okay to interrupt a student or is it better to let them finish speaking?

This question reminds us that there are different situations we face. First of all, we can correct spoken errors or written errors. Second, mistakes may or may not prevent a student from communicating effectively. The goals of error correction are to correct (1) when it’s appropriate and (2) in a way that makes communication more effective. But what does that really mean in practice?

Let’s start with writing. Corrections to student compositions are best handled in stages. I like to take students through a series of revisions. I coach myself to balance a few different things:

  • teacher correction with prompts for self-correction,
  • correction with praise,
  • and written feedback with oral/video feedback.

See more tips in an earlier post. A key danger when correcting students’ writing is taking away a sense of ownership. I try to correct in a way that creates greater clarity, but preserves the student’s voice and intent.

Corrections to student’s spoken English also has pitfalls. Back in 2009, I noted the danger of stymieing self-expression. See post. Sometimes it’s clear that a student is struggling to find the words or structure to say something. We can offer support by quickly and quietly supplying a suggestion and prompting the student to continue his or her thought.  Most online teaching platforms have a chat box, so in my live lessons I have the option of typing a suggestion without interrupting the student. What I don’t want is for a student to become dependent on me for completing sentences correctly, so we have to encourage students to express a full thought, mistakes and all. I tell students that listeners can always ask for clarification.

There’s also the opposite situation, where a student isn’t struggling or self-conscious at all while speaking. Thoughts are being shared at a rapid pace, but errors are being made. What do you do?

Too much interruption will break the flow, but obviously if a statement isn’t clear, correction is necessary. Use of a chat box or whiteboard is convenient for noting wrong word choices or grammar mistakes. I may let a student speak at length and enjoy the opportunity to explore a thought. As I listen, I note the kinds of mistakes that affect clarity. Then, so as not to take away from the value of what was said, I comment first on the content. Then I call attention to the errors made and, when possible, I prompt the student to self-correct.

Overall, I think error correction is a bit like cooking in the kitchen because they’re both art forms.  When you make a dish, there’s a basic recipe to follow, but you learn to substitute ingredients, add new ones, eyeball the measurements, and judge readiness based on what your senses tell you. When we provide feedback during a lesson, there are guiding principles, but personal style, experience, and creativity come into play.

What are your best practices when it comes to error correction?

Photo credit: Correcting, Proof, Paper, Correction by 3844328. Retrieved from the Public Domain at https://pixabay.com/en/correcting-proof-paper-correction-1870721/.

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